Crime, Punishment, and Rough Justice

Locking up offenders does little to prevent crime or make us safer. Daniel Baird takes a short look at the history behind our impulse to punish.

At its most basic, punishment is hard to distinguish from revenge, and the impulse for retaliation is no doubt hard-wired. Studies have shown that card players will give up benefits to themselves, such as a winning hand, to expose and penalize cheaters: punishment, in the short run, trumps even self-interest. Psychologists who use game theory to study the evolution of co-operation have found that the threat of swift retaliation against those who engage in uncooperative behaviour is crucial to establishing stable, productive communities; we have a collective stake in the assurance that those who profit at our expense will pay a steep price. The idea of community, it seems—one of Homo sapiens’ chief advantages in the competition for scarce resources—emerged under the dark shadow of punishment.

Nonetheless, retaliation has no intrinsic moral legitimacy, and since it involves hurting another person, the victim might well perceive him- or herself as harmed and retaliate in kind, creating an open-ended cycle of tit-for-tat blood feuds, waged throughout history and still common in such places as rural Albania. For punishment to be something greater than mere retaliation, it must have a deeper grounding, and that is just what early Babylonian law and the Hebrew Bible endeavoured to teach.